Driving, cycling and bus usage have all rebounded somewhat since the first two months of the pandemic, but subway and commuter rail ridership remain low.
As New York City continues to reopen from coronavirus lockdown measures, more and more residents are traversing the boroughs—and many are using cars to do so, transit advocates said Thursday, warning of a coming “carmageddon” that will bring increased congestion, pollution and crashes to city streets if the trend continues, especially with schools slated to reopen later this month.
Advocacy group Transportation Alternatives analyzed several transit metrics and found that driving, cycling and bus usage have all rebounded somewhat since the first two months of the pandemic, but subway and commuter rail ridership remain low. MTA bus ridership—which dropped by 78 percent during March and April—is now just 35 percent lower than it was during pre-COVID times. Subway ridership, however, was still down 74 percent in August.
“It appears that post-pandemic New Yorkers trust the above-ground, windows-open potential of the bus to a greater degree than the subway,” the group’s findings read.
Similarly, driving has been increasing: While the number of cars using the city’s bridge and tunnel crossings dropped steeply at the start of the pandemic, they’ve since climbed back up, having returned to pre-COVID levels in June. Overall traffic levels are down just nine percent from last year, the report notes.
Transportation Alternatives also analyzed Apple Maps data, which found a 27 percent uptick in New Yorkers searching for driving directions as the city reopened, while walking and public transit mapping requests decreased. The number of tickets issued to drivers by the city’s speed safety cameras went up 67 percent between February and August, prompting fears about increased traffic crashes.
The pandemic has, however, spurred more New Yorkers to take up cycling: The average number of bikes crossing the East River bridges on weekdays was up 23 percent in August compared to the year before, and Citi Bike ridership was also up last month.
Still, advocates say the city needs to act now to the curb the number of New Yorkers choosing cars over public transit. A number of transit groups who served on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Surface Transportation Advisory Council—convened this spring to “provide guidance to shape the City’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic”—penned a letter to the mayor on Tuesday imploring him to implement more of the recommendations they published in June. Those included a call for the city to add 40 miles of emergency bus lanes before the end of summer and expand the city’s network of protected bike lanes.
On Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer called for the city to encourage more students to bike to school this fall, since yellow school bus capacity is being reduced to comply with social distancing standards on buses—prompting concerns about even more increased car traffic from families driving their children to school.
Stringer is asking the city to construct 1.5 miles of protected bike lanes around 50 high school buildings in the next year, and to provide either free bicycles or Citi Bike memberships to low-income public high school students.
“Reimagining our streets is not a job we can postpone until after the pandemic,” Stringer said in a statement.